Adding Texture To Your Photos with Curves Adjustment Layers

Final photo created using curves adjustment layers

Hard Edge: If you want a clean dividing line between your selection and the rest of the selection, use the Quick Selection tool to make your selection. To use it, simply click on the area you want selected and then keep clicking on other areas to add them to the selection. As you do so, Photoshop will add areas to your selection. If parts of the image that you do not want get added to your selection, hold down the Alt key (or Option key on a Mac) while clicking on that area to remove them.

When you do so, Photoshop will show the edge of your selection with a moving dotted line. Most people refer to these as the marching ants.

graphic showing a selection made for a curves adjustment layer

Create the selection before you create the Curves Adjustment Layer. Since you will have a selection made when you create a Curves Adjustment Layer, Photoshop will automatically create a mask for you. The selection portion will be white and the rest of the picture will be black. In your layers palette, it will look like this:

Gravestone layers

Soft Edge: To create a selection that blends in naturally with its surroundings, use the Brush tool. Create the Curves Adjustment layer first (Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Curves). When you do so, a mask will automatically be created along with your new layer. It will be white, meaning that any changes you make to the image will be applied to the image. Press Ctrl+I to invert the mask, which will make it black. When the mask is black, you will see no changes to the image that were made in that layer. Why would you do that? Because now you are going to select your Brush tool and you will paint with white. You will paint only where you want the effect of your Curves Adjustment Layer to be applied.

Just click and paint on the image where you want the effect. You will see no change to the image as you do so. However, later when you make changes to the curve, they will impact only the area you have selected. If this doesn’t make sense to you now, I will show an example of this below that might help.

The pixels you see in the histogram for the Curves Adjustment Layer are only those for the area you have selected. As per usual with a histogram, the darker tones are to the left and the lighter tones are to the right. We need to make the darker tones slightly darker and the lighter tones slightly lighter. We could do this in one of two ways:

  1. Drag in the end points. You can pull the black and point to the right and the white and point to the left which will have the effect of steeping the curve for your selection.
  2. Pull down on the curve on the left side and pull up on the curve on the right side. This will also have the effect of steeping the curve in the meat of your selection.
graphic showing before and after photos using curves adjustment layer to create texture
As you saw above, I created a selection of the front gravestones. I created a Curves Adjustment Layer, which automatically created a mask. When you see the histogram, it is only for the pixels within your selection. Here I have steepened the curve by pulling down on the line on the left side of the histogram and pushing up on the line on the right side of the histogram. This adds contrast to the pixels within the selection.

It really doesn’t matter how you go about modifying the curve as long as you are steeping the curve within the area where most of the pixels reside. When you Steven the curve you are adding contrast. This contrast within the selection adds texture to it.

To finish the picture, the only other thing I did was add a little bit of darkening to the right side (of course using a Curves Adjustment Layer). After doing that, here is the before and after of the photo:

photo before and after curves adjustment layers to create texture

A couple thoughts before we leave this topic:

  • The idea here is to keep the brightness values the same. You are only looking to add to contrast. Therefore, click on the little eyeball in front of each layer to check your brightness values it. Of course, you can make your selections lighter or darker depending on your purposes.
  • You might find that making changes in the manner suggested in this article adds a little bit of a color cast to your photo. That is because when you change the curve you are changing it for all color channels equally. Some colors may be more prominent in some areas of the histogram than others. If you want to fix that, check the histogram for the individual color channels in your curves adjustment later. If you don’t know how to do that, we’ll cover it in another article.
  • This may take you a while to work through at first. After a while, you will fly through the process and it will only take seconds.

The Curves Adjustment Layer is the most powerful tool in Photoshop. Frankly, I believe it is the most powerful tool in any photography post-processing application. You can use it to change brightness, contrast, color, sharpness, and (as we saw here) texture. Using it in this way, you have complete control over what areas of the picture you want to change, and how much contrast you want to add.

Keep in mind that all we have done here is add texture. You might be thinking to yourself that you could do that just was well, and perhaps simpler, with another tool or other software. You would not have the degree of control though, either over the selection or over the adding of the texture. Perhaps more importantly, however, is the fact that you can use Curves Adjustment Layers to brighten or darken or adjust the color at the same time. In this case, I tried to keep the relative brightness values about the same. I made no change to color at all. But I could have. We’ll get into that in future articles.

In the next article we will see how to use it to increased clarity in your photos.